The Male Animal
By Gavin Smith
The Power of the Dog
Dir. Jane Campion, New Zealand/U.S./U.K., Netflix
“Phil always did the castrating.” Those are the first words in Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog, which is set on a Montana cattle ranch in 1925. Jane Campion’s adaptation doesn’t open with such shock tactics, preferring to establish the film’s concerns in a more indirect but no less apt way with a brief opening voiceover, delivered by Phil’s future step-nephew: “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother?” Nevertheless, while the film dispenses with the first third of the book, Campion can’t resist giving us Savage’s money shot. But by this point she has fully established the psychological terrain she’s traversing, exploring as never before the realm of masculinity—its values, its ethos—and its discontents.
Were it not for the presence of a few automobiles and electric lights and the absence of six-guns, The Power of the Dog would be the Western Campion has no particular interest in making. Bronco Henry, the revered mentor of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and embodiment of the old West, has been dead and buried since the turn of the century and all that remains of him is a small shrine mounted on the wall of the stable (“In loving memory”). Yet he still looms large in the psyche of Phil, who is prone to harking back to the man who made him a man’s man to anyone who’ll listen. Phil’s brother, mild and reticent George (Jesse Plemons), is hardly made of the same mettle as his Alpha Male sibling, who clings to an origin myth that would have it that the brothers are “Romulus and Remus” to Bronco Henry’s “wolf who raised us.” The Burbank ranch is Phil’s timeless paradise of masculine dominion, its ways unchanging, a place where Phil works with his hands while George manages the business. But change is afoot, and Phil doesn’t see it coming.
Trouble comes to paradise when, completely blindsiding Phil, George courts and then quickly marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the widowed proprietor of a boarding house. Suddenly installed in the Burbank household, Rose is a familiar Campion transplant, not far removed from mail-order bride Ida in The Piano and Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. As in The Piano, the sympathy or solidarity of the household’s female domestics is not forthcoming, leaving Rose marooned in a community of rowdy men, not a stone’s throw from the Mitcham clan of Top of the Lake’s first season. Here she’s faced with a one-sided close-quarter war of attrition waged by a brother-in-law who makes no secret of the fact that he sees her as nothing but an interloper, or, as he immediately puts it to her, “a cheap schemer.” The delivery of a piano (straight out of Savage’s novel) seems to clinch things, but for the fact that Rose is shaky and mediocre. Eventually she turns to alcohol to cope with the stress. Matters are further compounded by the arrival of Rose’s gangling son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is attending boarding school and aspires to be a surgeon like his dead father. In an earlier encounter, Phil deemed him insufficiently masculine and mocked him for crafting paper roses for the boarding house’s rough-and-ready dining hall. Now Phil refers to him as “Miss Nancy.” In all, it’s a recipe for intolerable domestic misery that rivals that of The Portrait of a Lady.
Despite all these touchstones, The Power of the Dog is a major career departure for Campion, insofar as her main character isn’t Rose—it’s Phil. But it’s less a case of Campion now reckoning with the kind of men that bedeviled women in her previous films or attacking the patriarchy from the inside than it is an attempt to delve into the psyche of a peculiar strand of masculinity and make manifest the unrest and incompletely understood self-knowledge that lurks within.
As played by Cumberbatch, who delivers a tightly wound, deeply internal performance, Phil is a fully imagined character “secure” in his sense of his own profound superiority and dominance. Phil attended Yale, and there are several indications of intellectual sophistication, as well as skills (with knife, horse, and banjo). His intelligence, accomplishments, and self-assurance go hand in hand with his intimidating presence; his reflexive contempt of or indifference to everyone around him, including the ranch hands, his brother, women, and especially Rose; and his disdain of decorum. (In the novel, Savage writes “George should have known Phil better than to think he would do something he didn’t feel.”) He is closest to self-awareness in his sensual relationship to the vast Montana (in fact, New Zealand) landscape, as if he is at one with it (“I stink and I like it”). Twice he retreats to his “Sacred Place,” where he strips off, covers himself in mud, bathes in the swimming hole, and lies in the sun in erotic reverie.
It's astonishing, then, that Phil draws Peter into his orbit. (Peter is seemingly a far less strange character than he is in the novel.) Phil begins to take an interest in him after the youth stumbles upon him in his secret private Sacred Place (discovering issues of the proto-pornographic magazine Physical Culture in a makeshift shack) and later displays stoic indifference to the ranch hands’ slurs. Initially, Phil’s attentions seem a stratagem to divide mother from son. But as the film shifts to focus on their burgeoning relationship, the details accumulate and point in only one direction. (Peter to Phil, in a seeming throwaway line: “You want me, Mr. Burbank?”)
Phil is stunned that Peter is the only person on the ranch who can discern in the faraway mountains the form of a barking dog—until now a private knowledge that belonged to Phil alone, although what that knowledge represents remains something of an enigma. In emulation of his own relationship with Bronco Henry, Phil becomes a mentor to the unprotesting youth, intent on cultivating his masculinity (“Don’t let your mom make sissy out of you”) in a series of initiation rites, including teaching him to ride, and sharing revealing anecdotes about his hero. By now Phil’s celibacy and his idolization of Bronco Henry (“more than a best friend”) speak for themselves. He even sits Peter in the Holiest of Holies—Bronco Henry’s saddle. But in approving of Peter’s impassive killing of an injured hare and concurring with his remark about “obstacles that need to be removed,” Phil fatally misreads the boy.
The viewer may anticipate a contest between Phil and Rose for the boy’s heart and mind, a kind of moral tug-of-war, and Rose’s physical deterioration as her son’s fortitude develops enhances the misdirection. But in the end, it’s Peter’s conception of masculinity, as encapsulated in the film’s opening voiceover, that prevails.
And yet. Throughout, Jonny Greenwood’s haunting and dissonant score and Ari Wegner’s brooding cinematography bear down on the action with a disturbing intensity, suggesting the darkness at hand. And the ending is dark indeed. In the course of the film Peter coldly kills and dissects animals—practicing for his envisaged career as a surgeon. At the end, Campion frames him over the shoulder at his window, looking down at his mother and stepfather in the yard, and slowly pulls the camera back. In the New York Film Festival press conference, Dunst divulged a secret that she and Smit-McPhee had shared, namely that in their characters’ backstories, Peter had killed his first father, an alcoholic doctor. Just what kind of a man will Peter turn out to be?
Men can be a form of relative salvation in Campion’s films, as embodied (albeit in a rather clichéd if not retrograde way) by Harvey Keitel’s earthy, sexually liberating frontiersman in The Piano and both Viggo Mortensen’s romantic suitor and Isabel’s dying cousin (Martin Donovan) in Portrait; and let’s not forget the deeply romantic relationship between Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) in Campion’s most underrated film, Bright Star, a relationship that, despite its vicissitudes and tragic conclusion, is mutually exalting. But more typically, the female protagonists in Campion’s films must contend with problem men—from Sam Neill’s repressed plantation owner in The Piano to John Malkovich’s gold digger in Portrait to Keitel’s cult deprogrammer in Holy Smoke to the more ambiguous red-herring threat represented by Mark Ruffalo’s police detective in In the Cut. And starting with that filmand coming into the open in the two seasons of TV’s Top of the Lake, Campion’s male antagonists have become surrounded by an aura of potential violence, in some cases with lethal consequences. There’s always a faint whiff of violence held in check surrounding The Power of the Dog’s hypermasculine Phil. But it’s perhaps the least “manly” character who ends up most dangerous—in this case a killer who is also some kind of savior.